Your query letter is out in the world. Barri Evins’ advice on how to reply like a pro, turn a pass into a positive, and recognize an open door.
A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
Last month we delved into getting your query letter onto the page in a way that is professional and powerful in order to achieve your Number One goal – getting industry pros to want to read your story.
With the fundamentals in place, let’s assume your now awesome query letter is soaring out into the world. Now what?
This month we’ll dig into some of your more vexing questions:
What are the realistic chances of a query letter actually getting me anywhere?
What happens when my query letter gets a response?
How do I deal with rejection?
Whether the query letter reply you’ve been yearning for is good, bad, or downright ugly, we are arming you with the strategies to respond like a professional, build a relationship, and turn a “pass” into a positive.
Keep your eye on the ultimate target and it can be done!
Query Letter Quandary – What To Do When Someone Says "Yes"
Your query letter gets a response!
Someone actually wants to see your material! You’ve been waiting a long time for this day. Success is yours! What’s next?
Be prepared to send a PDF via email, unless otherwise specified. Attach a brief note that underscores that the materialwas requested by them. “Per your request” is a good way to start – or better yet – make it the subject line of your email so your material isn’t confused with some blind submission and sinks to the very bottom of the stack. (Psst – that was a seemingly small piece of very useful advice.)
Assume your original query is long lost in cyberspace. Important information should be repeated here, as this is what will travel with the material. Include a tightened version of the query to remind the reader of your chops, as well as title, genre, and logline.
“Thank you for your interest,” is an appropriate way to close. No need to weight it down with “I’m waiting eagerly, desperately, clinging to life, and holding my breath for your response.”
Now comes the hard part:
Still more waiting.
How the g%* d^^&# f@c# long can it possibly take to read one little script or book?
Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. The ones with a metaphorical plate piled sky-high with reading.
Taking a job in the industry means reconciling yourself to a lifetime of homework hanging over your head. No summer break either.
When I was starting out as an agency assistant, writers would call to ask about the script they had submitted to my boss. Remember, this was in the olden days when scripts were printed out – on paper! I would politely ask the writer to hold, then head down to the shelf outside my boss’ office that held a stack of scripts she needed to read. Of course, scripts that were handed to her by one of the agency’s partners went straight to the top. Scripts referred by a development exec, or by clients were next. (Pssst, that was a valuable piece of information.) Those that managed to get in “over the transom” were stacked in the order they came in with the newest going on the bottom.
Back on the phone I’d say, ”You’re Number 18 down in the stack.” It was a simple answer that both satisfied and illuminated.
Everyone working in the industry has a stack like this, even if today it’s an electronic one with its own challenges – an invisible stack with more just virtually piling up. On the upside, it’s not likely to fall over and bury you. On the downside, it’s trickier to keep track of cyberspace.
How long should you wait before asking, “Hello, remember me? The writer whose material you actually asked for?”
Four to eight weeks is a reasonable amount of time. Remember, anything else that comes in while your material is waiting to be read that is a higher priority goes on top. That includes material that is an active project, submitted by clients, or recommended by colleagues in the industry.
It’s understandable that you want a response, but you don’t want to be annoying. What to do?
According to my views on industry etiquette, you may send a brief, polite email after six weeks have passed. That six-week period should not be over the holidays; that time doesn’t count. If you do not receive a reply, that’s it. Stop.
Either you’ve been passed on or you’re simply never going to make it to the top of the stack. You’ve sent a pleasant reminder – hey it is harder to keep track now that we don’t have a physical stack to look at – but you don’t have any moves left.
But the person is passing!
Chances are, you’re going to get a pass, even though we read your query, and asked to see your material. Most submissions are passed on most of the time.
- We might have construed that your story was more commercial than it turned out to be.
- The idea may not be well executed, meaning how the premise plays out, not the quality of the writing, which is actually less important than the idea itself.
- The material may not be well executed, meaning there’s an intriguing idea there, but the writing falls far short of doing it justice.
- It may not have delivered what was implied in the query letter.
- It might not meet our mandate – what we are hunting for.
- It might be similar to a project we already have.
So your query letter was rejected. It's what you do next that matters.
How do you turn a query letter “pass” into a “win”?
In this business, a little professionalism and common courtesy goes a long way.
“Thank you for your time and consideration.” Yes, it’s actually that simple.
Think of the pass as an opportunity to build a relationship. That means replying to the pass like a grown up, not a pouty child or a pushy person. These replies won me over:
“Thank you for your thoughtful response.”
“Thank you so much, Ms. Evins for the prompt read and quick response. I truly appreciate you taking the time!”
“Once again, we appreciate the courtesy shown us.”
You might add that you hope you can contact the exec in the future with new material.
If we liked your writing, we are now truly likely to be open to reading your work again.
Recognize an open door when you see it!
Often writers only hear the pass – which resonates loud and clear – and overlook the positives. I get it. It hurts. And if you’re invested in your work, it should hurt. However, if this is your vocation, you must shrug off the slings and arrows and keep moving forward.
If someone passes and makes a point of stating that they liked your writing, or responded to your idea, or that they’re passing because they’re looking for a different genre, that’s an invitation, not a nice blow off. Although we’re plenty good at the nice blow off – “Thanks for your submission. Sorry, it’s not for us. Best of luck.” – this is a door wide open. A specific effort on the part of the passer.
When you find the open door, follow up! But do so professionally.
Be proactive when you get an “open door” query letter pass.
This is your shot at building an industry relationship. If you follow up:
- You can reply that you are about to complete a new script, and will let them know when it is ready to go out. This is far better than promising a draft by a specific date. When it isn’t, you will be stressed and feel pressured to send something that’s not ready, while we have forgotten all about it.
- If they respond to your idea, you might reply with by querying two other loglines on material that is ready to go and ask if they are interested in reading one of them.
- If you have material in their specific genre, and if it’s ready to go, query that in your reply.
- No matter what, keep a record of your interaction for future reference with all the pertinent details.
Time for a real life example. Over the course of one day via social media, a recent screenwriting school graduate was able to impress me to the extent that he turned me around from politely declining to read his query letter and give him free feedback – I can't do as a favor for one person when I charge others – to becoming my intern.
As my intern, he had plenty of dull chores to do. But he also had some amazing perks in return. Including my help reworking his query letter until it absolutely shone.
He sent it out. And it got responses.
Same beloved intern subsequently contacts me, concerned about a response he got from an assistant at a midsized agency. The assistant explained that he was not allowed to accept unsolicited submissions, adding the oft-cited legal language attempting to protect the agency: In the event any future project bore any similarity to his work, it would be purely coincidental.
All utterly standard. Here’s the shocker:
The assistant takes the time and goes out of his way to offer the young writer a bit of honest, inside perspective. He explains that he gets a hundred similar emails each month, that the spec market is flooded, that blind submissions don’t get movies made – agents get movies made, and if a blind submission led to a sale it would be a tremendous stroke of luck. He went on to add:
With that said, if you would like any advice about the business side of the industry then I will be more than happy to correspond with you, but for the sake of reading and submitting original materials of yours, I would suggest looking elsewhere.
My intern looks the guy up and finds that he’s been an assistant for only five months, and, therefore, decides he won’t bother contacting him again.
I nearly blew my top.
Why? He was he being foolish enough to blow off an opportunity to cultivate a relationship in the industry. He was ignoring a clearly wide open door! Within a year the assistant could well be a young agent hungry for clients. In ten years they could be head of Feature Lit. Indeed, I met the head of feature lit at that very agency when they were an agency assistant. That assistant could go onto run a production company for a producer, actor, or director, or become a studio executive.
“Do you think you will be able to reach him then?“ I retorted.
As for the assistant’s harsh assessment that distressed my intern, the assistant was telling the truth. Although I write columns on how to write a powerful query letter, it doesn't mean I believe they are the one true path. They are just an important, useful tool.
In this case, the query worked like a charm. I guarantee you the writer would never have gotten a lengthy response and an open door if he hadn’t sent a professional, well-written query letter with a solid, commercial idea.
Don’t go overboard!
You now have a budding professional relationship. Use it, but please don’t abuse it. Any query, correspondence, or meeting should have one, singular objective. Don’ muddy the waters.
Don’t ask for vague career advice. Don’t send two scripts when I’ve read your loglines and asked for one. Don’t email every other day.
When someone keeps trying to wring all they can out of me: reads, responses to multiple loglines and their revisions, (I offer one freebie!) questions on how to get into the industry, who else might want to read their work and more, I feel like chum in shark-infested waters.
An aspiring writer who has been corresponding with me, recently emailed with four questions, stopping just short of “What is the meaning of life?” I have been patiently answering his one and two question emails for three weeks. Anyone reading this have some advice for me? Seriously! I strive to be kind and professional, but now I simply want to be done. Way to turn an open door into a closed one.
Avoid being the Networking Vampire we’re seeking to avoid and become the Winning Networker who plays his cards right and charms us.
Handle yourself like a professional, and you will be treated like one.
For some eye-opening examples of What Not To Do when you want to sound like a pro – check out this blog.
Query Letter Rejection – It's Not All About You
Ever been dumped by someone who said, “It’s not you, it’s me”?
Then I don’t have to tell you: It’s virtually always about you.
The same logic applies to query rejections. Chances are, it is about you. If we grooved on your idea, we would have asked to read your material.
Your query letter didn’t succeed in doing it’s Number One Job – making someone want to read your material. If so, go back to Part One of this article, and relentlessly rework your query.
Sometimes it’s not about you:
- If you query something that is similar to a project that we are developing, it will get a prompt pass. We don’t want to touch that and open ourselves up to a radioactive can of worms.
- If your story doesn’t fit within the parameters of what we are currently looking for, it’s a pass.
- If your material is in the same vein as something that just bombed, it’s a pass.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much about you.
Query Letter Rejection – It's All About You
When your query letter gets "yes," but your material is constantly being rejected once it is read, you may have simply sent the wrong story to the wrong person at the wrong time and gotten rejected. But the harsh truth is, the fault may lie with you.
Chances are it isyour story that’s being rejected.
If story is rejected again and again – with the door firmly shut – it’s time to take a long, hard look at your material.
If you can listen – and truly take in this rejection as a form of feedback rather than just torture – you can learn from it.
Is it strong storytelling? Is it the best version of your story that it can be? Is it well executed? Is it firing on all cylinders? Is it compelling? Is there an audience?
Enough rejection can force you to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses and, ultimately, the potential of the story to succeed in the marketplace.
When facing this tough decision with my clients and students, I’ve found these red-flag core story issues time and again:
- Jumping in without an outline, then rewriting the story so many times you lose your way because you don’t know where you are headed. I call this ”Writing with beer goggles on” because you simply can’t see clearly.
- Writing without knowing the heart of your story before you begin. You may hope to find it over time, but when you start with theme, it infuses every aspect of your decision-making. It elevates your material. It adds resonance to your story. It makes your story engaging.
- Multiple rewrites – we’re talking double digits here – lead to losing faith in that which makes your story truly compelling, what drew you to tell this tale in the first place. With each rewrite you are actually losing interest. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that your audience will be bored too. The reaction is to keep adding more extraneous “exciting” elements until you have effectively buried what made story special at the outset. See if you’re suffering from this phenomenon, which I call: “Too much tinsel on your tree,” here.
The bottom line – too much rewriting can be more detrimental than beneficial. It may be time to stop and hit pause.
This might be the point where you pony up and pay for an objective professional opinion. It can be a solid investment in your career. Yes, I’m a story consultant advocating consultants. But this is a PSA.
There are a lot of great people out there doing very good work. Here are some thought-provoking questions and answers to keep in mind when considering hiring a consultant.
I’d add, find someone whose feedback style is a good match for you, so you can make the most progress. Do you respond best to written notes you can mull? Does interactive discussion show you possibilities and help your ideas flow? Would face-to face or Skype be the best fit for you?
Ask other writers for recommendations. Ask consultants if they will speak with you first about how you will work together. This homework pays off and helps you avoid shelling out your hard-earned dollars, only to be disappointed if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
If, by whatever means possible, you are able to get some objectivity on your own beloved story, it may be time to make one of the toughest choices in the life of a writer:
Can this story be saved?
Is it time to pull the plug, put it in a drawer, and move on? Here’s how to decide whether your story needs a polish, a teardown or a “Do Not Resuscitate”?
It’s painful, but the query letter that gets a response only to lead to repeated rejection of your story and a slammed door, could be telling you something important if you listen. It might not seem like much of a silver lining, but wouldn’t you rather move on, and put your time and energy into a new story?
Query Letter Catch-22 – What's The Good News?
In Part One of this series, we’ve empowered you with the tools to write a truly killer query. We dug deep into the darkest and grittiest realities of the query letter in this post to find the upside. Now it’s time to truly carpe diem.
Yes, when it comes to the query letter, there is good news. One indisputable, sure-fire way to kill it.
Next Month: The secret to the query letter that leads to getting your material read. The Top Way to flip the script and turn the odds in your favor.
Get more tips from Barri Evins with her on-demand webinar
Loglines, Queries & Synopses:
How to Take Your Script from Being Ignored to Getting Noticed!